For the first time in my short tenure on Council, we had one of those big development decisions that brought some public comment, most of it negative. So it is worth the time to go over how I viewed the request, to address some of the community concerns, and to explain why I voted the way I did.
The question on the table for Council was whether we approved the Development Permit (DP) for the next phase of the Brewery District, which includes the first residential tower and a significant number of community amenities. Earlier development phases brought the office and commercial space where TransLink offices, Save-on-Foods, Browns Social house and other retail spaces, and the Health Sciences Association offices are currently housed. There are several phases of primarily residential development coming over the next decade or so.
DP is the stage in the approval process where the “form and character” of the buildings are reviewed to see if they align with the applicable Zoning Bylaw and Official Community Plan, and whether variances from these bylaws are required to meet the goals of the Developer. In theory, the City has a lot of power at this stage to adapt the building size and shape, design elements, landscaping, and such. In practice, if the City wants a lot developed it needs to negotiate with the builder and balance what the City wants (i.e. the word and/or spirit of the OCP), what the community wants (as determined through public consultation), and what the builder is willing to invest in building (they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to make money). Never are all three of those things exactly aligned. That is why we have planning staff, and why the process sometimes takes months or years.
In the case of this Phase 3 of the Brewery District, the applicable Zoning Bylaw was developed in 2006 and passed in 2007. At the time, there was extensive public consultation, and several iterations of earlier designs were offered. The City’s primary interest (I was not, obviously, on Council at the time, but can infer from going through the old reports) was in seeing the old brewery replaced with (commercial) employment lands, while the site owner clearly wanted to build as many condos as they could sell. The community’s main concern was that the tallest building proposed was to be over 300 feet tall, which some felt was out of scale for Sapperton. As the final “form and character” issues would be delayed until DP, the City and the developer found agreement on the density of the site (i.e. number of square feet of Commercial and Residential), the phasing of the build-out (commercial first), and the maximum heights of the buildings (180’ for the lower three, up to 300’ for the higher one). The City also agreed to permit the developer to shift density between buildings to accommodate community concerns.
I went back through those 2007 documents, and there was nothing unclear about the Zoning as passed – Phase 3 had a 180’ maximum building height, Phase 4 a 300’ maximum height. Although there were concerns raised by some residents at the time, the Council of the time saw the community benefit of that density, and the promise of jobs and retail that came with it. Building >180,000 square feet of commercial/retail space surrounded by residential buildings essentially on top of an existing SkyTrain station aligns well with the Regional Growth Strategy and the City’s own long-term planning. The building being presented right now required no variances from the existing zoning Bylaw, and fit both the spirit and the letter of the agreement made between Wesgroup and the City back in 2009. To turn down this DP at this point would demonstrate very bad faith on the part of the City, in my opinion.
That said, there were some concerns expressed by a few members of the Sapperton community. I will attempt to address the main concerns, recognizing I am not going to make the people holding these concerns happy, but as a new and idealistic public representative, I figure people deserve direct answers.
The McBride Sapperton Residents Association wrote a letter to Council on the issue. In the letter, the MSRA opposed the height of the building, and requested a reduction in the height, although their preferred height was not made clear, nor did they make clear if they would accept a widening of the building into the view corridor (i.e. would they be satisfied with a shorter, wider building, as the Zoning Bylaw would allow, or did they want the City to change the Zoning Bylaw and reduce overall density at this late stage?).
A large part of the contention on this DP centered around the idea that residents expected a smaller tower at the south end of the development, because that was what Wesgroup* promised. Depending on whom you ask, that tower was 8, 9, 12, or 14 stories. Indeed, looking back at earlier representations of the site (notably, ones from the time the 2007 Zoning Bylaw was approved) there were pictures showing abstract blocks that look to be 8 or 9 stories, and detailed renderings that range from 12 to 15 stories. However, the bylaw at the time clearly stated 180 feet (equivalent to 18 stories) as the maximum height at this location, and the total square footage being built now is no more than that approved back in 2007. The balance has always been height vs. width and protecting view corridors. I do not agree with the suggestion that there was a “bait and switch” here.**
A small number of people raised concern to Council about the higher density of this development, and question whether that fits the “character” of the Sapperton neighbourhood. The problem with this argument is that we are trying to call back a ship that sailed long ago. The density represented by this building is exactly in line with the 2007 rezoning, and the public consultation and City desires at the time were to develop density necessary to assure retail success in the block. Looking back at the consultation from the time, the “overall density” argument was not prominent, it was the maximum height issue (at over 300′), which provided for the density shifts we are seeing now. Re-opening that discussion 8 years later, after the developer has built the employment lands on the site, is not good faith in my opinion.
I would argue that when it comes to this development, the more density we can stick on it and still provide essential services, the better it serves the City’s Official Community Plan, the Regional Growth Strategy, and the better it protects nearby residential neighbourhoods. This site is immediately adjacent to a SkyTrain Station and the largest single employer in New Westminster. The way it has developed, it will be the anchoring retail district of Sapperton. The first principle of Smart Growth (upon which the Regional Growth Strategy is built) is to allow people to travel less by putting everything they need close together. This will allow the critical mass of density we need to support a vibrant retail/commercial mix without expanding density increases into the single-family neighbourhoods of Sapperton. Yes, it means that your single family house (like mine) might now be located within a block of a 16-story tower (like mine is), and it will require that the City allocate more of the resources this increased density allows towards providing the infrastructure and amenities needed to support more people.
This brings me to the traffic impact issue, which is one that resonated the most with me. There will be traffic impacts of this development, no doubt. Most of the ~200 people who will live in this building and the ~1000 total who will live in the Brewery District by the time the development is completed, will own a car. Many of them will use it on a daily basis. There will be local impacts of this increased traffic. No debate there. The City will do what it can to mitigate those impacts so that every resident of the City (new and old) can get around as easily as possible, and the livability of our residential neighbourhoods is protected. I think that a neighbourhood traffic plan for Sapperton is due, and will be done before this tower is complete.
That said, traffic is a regional issue. New Westminster produces the least traffic per capita of any City in the lower mainland, something like 26,000 daily trips in total, yet suffers under the load of 400,000+ (depending on whom you ask) through-trips every day. As a regional partner, New Westminster is not just doing its part, it is leading the way. Developments like the Brewery District are part of the regional Smart Growth solution, and are a demonstration of our leadership.
Not everyone in this tower is going to ride the SkyTrain or walk to RCH every day, but the proportion of them who do use those options will be way higher than in lower-density developments away from reliable and frequent transit service that are the alternative. When people accuse New Westminster of being parochial about traffic, or of not allowing freeways to be built through our residential neighbourhoods, it is developments like the Brewery District, Plaza 88, and (let’s hope) Sapperton Green that are our best counter-argument. We are developing our City in alignment with regional growth and transportation plans.
So, yes. I voted in favour of this Development Permit, because it met the spirit and letter of the 2007 Zoning Bylaw without any variances; because density immediately adjacent to a SkyTrain station represents the development goals of the City and the region and represents the best hope we have to preserve the livability of our residential neighbourhoods; and because we cannot forget the regional transportation picture when addressing local traffic issues.
*Disclosure #1: My Campaign disclosure forms are on their way to the province right now for vetting, but I should disclose that Wesgroup, the developer of the Brewery District, donated $750 to my campaign.
** Disclosure #2: This links to a blog post by Brad Cavanagh a Sapperton resident who I know socially, and who is doing the best job of out-NWimbying me right now with his sharply worded and well-researched blog. He’s like me, but smarter with a better editor.